DENVER - When it comes to dinner, even Thanksgiving dinner, Jorge de la Torre orders beer, not wine.
It's not that he doesn't know or like wine. After all, he is the dean of culinary education at Johnson & Wales University in Denver. Rather, he thinks many so-called craft beers - once better known as microbrews - can make better pairings with food than wine.
"I try to hold my head up, even in those fancy places," he said recently.
And there may be no better time to test his theory than at Thanksgiving, when dinner plates become cacophonies of taste - savory turkey, salty ham, sweet and tart cranberries, creamy mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie with hints of cinnamon and nutmeg.
"That is a tough plate to match (with a wine)," de la Torre said. "The beauty of beer is that with one or two beers, you can hit all those flavors without contrasting and clashing."
Not only is a good beer refreshing, the lower alcohol content can keep you from getting too tipsy in front of the in-laws, and the carbonation helps clear the palate, said de la Torre, who brought his message to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver this fall.
Craft beers generally are made using 100 percent malted barley, without the corn or rice used in many mass-produced beers. And they come in numerous styles, from adventuresome lagers and fruit beers to cream ales and stouts, and on and on.
"If you're looking for flavor excitement, craft beers are where to look. If you want to wash a meal down and be refreshed, mass-market beers are fine," said Bill Covaleski, brewmaster at Victory Brewing Co. in Downingtown, Pa.
Many breweries, like Flying Dog Brewery in Denver, sell variety packs that let you try several flavors in one case.
There are plenty of craft brewers ready to choose from. The Brewers Association, which promotes craft beer, counted 449 regional craft breweries and microbreweries as of August, as well as 922 brewpubs.
That's up from about 40 breweries in 1974, said Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver.
The numbers show the growing interest in craft beer is not just a fad but a return to normalcy, Oliver contends. While people might once have boasted about being "meat and potatoes" sort of folk, more have become willing to try ethnic fare and zingier tastes.
And that's the perfect opening for craft beers. "People want a more interesting food life. We're part of it. We're getting back up to normal for a culture with this kind of diversity and vibrancy," Oliver said.
Ready to try it this Thanksgiving? John Fischer, an instructor at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., suggests a Belgian-style beer, which he said have a little more alcohol and body to deal with richer dishes, and a good balance of malt and hops. Something from Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, N.Y., for example, or Golden Monkey, a Belgian-style Tripel from Victory Brewing, he said.
Oliver suggested any sort of brown ale or biere de garde, which is French farmhouse ale.
De la Torre said switching beers between dishes also works well. Cream-style ales or pale ales can cut through the fat of the skin and gravy of turkey, while sweet doppelbocks (a strong German-style beer) can go with salty ham and mashed potatoes.
And if your guests are more accustomed to sipping wine, consider the holiday dinner a chance to introduce them to the flavors of craft beer.
"It's like a jazz record. There came one day when someone played you your first Coltrane or Miles Davis record. Slowly you became a jazz fan, and that just made your life better," Oliver said. "It's just absolutely wonderful to be that person who opened that door for you."
And if home brewing is your thing, Fischer suggests making a malty, spiced beer to go with dessert.
"The first thing people have and the last thing people have leave the biggest impressions. That could be a cool way to end a meal, with a malty, spicy beer to serve with a pumpkin pie," he said.
Mike Mosier of Parker, Colo., a "middle-aged" home brewer, said bringing his own brews to big meals have made him the go-to guy for drinks at family dinners.
"I never have to make another side dish again," he said, grinning.
On the Net:
Brewers Association: http://www.beertown.org